Sugar Bowl Tale of the Tape: How UW Huskies match up vs Texas

Dec 30, 2023, 10:13 AM

UW Huskies Michael Penix Jalen McMillan Texas CFP...

Michael Penix Jr and Jalen McMillan of the Washington Huskies on Nov. 19, 2022. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

After a month of waiting, the UW Huskies’ highly-anticipated matchup with Texas is nearly here.

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On Monday, the Dawgs and Longhorns face off in the Sugar Bowl with the winner punching a ticket to the national championship game against either Michigan or Alabama.

For Washington, this is the school’s second appearance in the College Football Playoff, the first coming in 2016 when the Huskies lost to Alabama. This is Texas’ first time in the CFP.

By now we know the stars for both teams as well as the coaching history, with former UW head coach Steve Sarkisian leading the Longhorns with former Huskies defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski running Texas’ defense. But what do you need to know about how these two teams match up with each other?

Let’s dive in.

What favors the UW Huskies?

The Huskies are known for their high-flying offense, which is operated by star quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

Penix was stellar again in 2023, leading Washington not only to a perfect 13-0 record to this point of the season, but also helping the Huskies lead the nation in passing yards for the second year in a row. The Huskies were also 17th in the nation in yards per completion, showing that explosive plays are a big part of Washington’s offensive strategy.

That’s important to note as Texas’ pass defense is hardly a strength of the team.

Texas has strong overall defensive numbers – we’ll get more into that later – but when it comes to stopping the pass, the Longhorns have their share of problems.

While UW’s passing attack was the best in the nation, Texas had the 92nd-ranked passing defense in the country out of 130 teams.

Penix, along with a star receiver trio of Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk, appear to have a considerable edge entering Monday’s matchup.

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Additionally, Washington has the nation’s best offensive line as the Huskies’ front five recently won the prestigious Joe Moore Award.

A big part of that? The Huskies are elite in pass protection.

While it seems likely that the Huskies would give up a bit of quarterback hits and sacks because of how often they pass, that’s hardly been the case. Washington was tied for fourth-fewest sacks allowed in the country this season, keeping Penix upright and able to find his targets for big plays.

Texas has a strong defensive front, but they’re 36th in the nation in sacks on defense, appearing to give Washington the edge when it comes to that particular matchup.

Washington has also shown a great ability to finish games late in the year.

Yes, the Huskies have had to pull out a lot of close wins, and a big part of that is thr fourth quarter.

Washington’s defensive numbers aren’t the best, but the Huskies come up when it matters.

Over their last eight games, the Dawgs are allowing an average of 3.875 points per fourth quarter while the offense is averaging 7.5 points per fourth quarter. Equate that over four quarters and that’s a 30-15.5 edge.

If UW enters the fourth quarter winning, tied or only down a few points to Texas, the Huskies will likely be feeling very good about their chances.

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What favors Texas?

Let’s start with Texas’ defense.

As noted, the Huskies on paper should have the edge when they drop back to pass. That doesn’t appear to be the case in the run game.

Texas’ defense is among the best in the nation when it comes to stopping the run.

Led by massive All-American defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat, the Longhorns were the No. 3 run defense in America, and held run-first teams Kansas State and Oklahoma State to just 61 combined yards on the ground in those two games.

Washington has found a lot of success on the ground over the last half of the year with Dillon Johnson pounding the rock, and the Huskies have done so against elite run defenses like Oregon (twice), Utah and Oregon State. But Texas’ run defense appears to be at a different level than the Huskies have seen so far.

And you know how we mentioned UW’s passing attack having an edge over Texas’ secondary? The same goes for when Texas has the ball.

Led by quarterback Quinn Ewers, who has completed over 70% of his passes in 2023, Texas was 18th in passing yards in 2023. The Huskies, meanwhile, were 120th in passing yards allowed.

This definitely has the makings of a high-flying shootout.

Where both teams struggle

As noted, both teams are among the nation’s worst when it comes to stopping the pass.

Neither team has been great at getting off the field on third down, either, with Washington’s third-down defense ranking 81st and Texas’ not being much better at 68th.

Both teams also give up a lot of free yardage via penalty. Texas is 95th in penalties and Washington is third-worst in the nation at 128th.

Where both teams thrive

As you might be able to tell by now, both teams have elite offenses.

Texas and Washington are both top-10 in total offense with the Longhorns ranking ninth and the Huskies right behind at 10th.

They’ve both found the end zone plenty, with Washington 11th in scoring and Texas 16th.

Washington has the best statistical passing attack in America, but Texas is no slouch there, ranking 18th.

The Huskies and Longhorns aren’t just explosive in the passing game, but they’re efficient. Texas is 14th in completion percentage and Washington is 20th.

Both teams also excel at moving the chains, with Washington 11th and Texas 16th in first downs.

Texas overall has much better defensive numbers than Washington, but both teams are great in one category: Interceptions.

Both the Huskies and Longhorns are tied for eighth in the nation in interceptions on defense.

Strength on strength

The Huskies and Longhorns will have quite a few situations where it’s strength versus strength, and that’s especially the case when Washington’s offense is on the field.

UW has the 11th-best third-down offense in the nation, but Texas’ third-down defense is No. 2 overall.

The Huskies are 10th and 11th in total yards and points, respectively, and Texas is 25th in yards allowed and 13th in points allowed.

And Washington is 11th in first downs on offense while Texas is 34th in first-down defense.

X-factors for UW Huskies offense

Speaking of strength on strength, it’ll be very fun to see how Washington’s offensive line stacks up with Texas’ massive defensive front.

The Huskies have done well up front all season long, but no team in America has size across the board like the Longhorns do on the defensive line.

Washington should hold up in pass protection as that’s not a strength of Texas’, but a key to this matchup could be whether or not the Huskies can create running lanes for Johnson, who rushed for over 1,00 yards this year and nearly 700 yards over the final five games of the season.

In the passing game, we saw just how big of an impact having McMillan back in Washington’s receiving corps is during the Pac-12 Championship Game.

McMillan, who had over 1,000 yards receiving last year, has missed considerable time this season due to a knee injury.

He’s fully healthy now, though, and was a force against Oregon, catching nine passes for 131 yards in the conference title game.

Very few teams boast three NFL-caliber receivers, and Washington is one of them.

Odunze is the big threat and may be a top-10 pick and Polk stepped up with a 1,000-yard season of his own with McMillan sidelined, but “J-Mac” takes the offense to another level.

McMillan can beat teams underneath and as a security blanket for Penix, but if too much attention is on Odunze and/or Polk, McMillan is more than explosive enough to take the tops off of opposing defenses. He showed that a few times against the Ducks.

X-factors for UW Huskies defense

Washington is solid in the run game, but the Huskies can get beat in the passing game. The Longhorns, as noted, have a great aerial attack.

It’d be easy to point to UW’s cornerbacks, such as Jabarr Muhammad, for this, but I think Washington’s safety play isn’t being talked about enough.

Safety play has been inconsistent for Washington this season, largely due to injury.

Asa Turner and Kam Fabiculanan have both missed considerable time with both being hurt, but both veteran defensive backs played in the Pac-12 title game and made a big impact.

Oregon put up 31 points, but the Ducks were not nearly as explosive as they were throughout the season.

A big reason why? With Turner and Fabiculanan back in the fold, the Huskies were able to use more two-high safety looks. Washington had played much of the second half of the season with one deep safety, putting the team’s cornerbacks on islands more often than not.

Against Oregon, Washington was able to keep everything in front, and outside of the late touchdown to Traeshon Holden, the Ducks did not find their usual deep passing plays. That is especially emphasized by Troy Franklin, the All-American receiver, having under 40 yards on nine targets in that game.

The UW Huskies’ tackling was a big story for that win over Oregon, but the return of the team’s veteran safeties is something that may be overlooked not just for that game, but the Sugar Bowl.

X-factors for the Texas offense

Xavier Worthy has been the Longhorns’ No. 1 receiver this year and he’s knocking on the door of 1,000 yards receiving. But Washington should be very focused on Adonai Mitchell, Texas’ big-play guy.

Mitchell has 51 catches this year for 813 yards and a team-leading 10 touchdowns. He also leads Texas in yards per reception at 15.9 by players with more than 10 catches.

The Longhorns also don’t boast a true No. 3 receiver like Washington does, but that’s because their other top passing weapon is a tight end.

Ja’Tavion Sanders presents a tough task for Washington at 6 foot 4 and 243 pounds while also moving very well for his size. He had 39 catches for 607 yards and two touchdowns and was second on the team in yards per reception at 15.6.

X-Factors for the Texas defense

I’ll talk about Sweat more soon, and he’s certainly a big key for Texas’ defense. But Byron Murphy is the more explosive player and is a potential matchup problem at 6 foot 1 and 310 pounds. He was second on the team in sacks with five, and is more of an impact player in the passing game than Sweat is.

When it comes to the secondary, keep an eye on Jahdae Barron, the Longhorns’ go-to nickel corner.

Barron, a senior, picked off just one pass this year, but he’s a veteran on the back end and is maybe Texas’ most consistent defensive back.

With UW running plenty of three- and four-receiver sets, Barron will be tested plenty on Monday.

The one-on-one matchup to watch

Here’s where I’ll highlight Sweat, who is an absolute mountain of a man at 6-4 and 362 pounds.

Sweat was a unanimous All-American and won the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman – offense or defense – in the nation.

Sweat’s impact doesn’t show up in the box score as he has just two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, but he moves blockers and takes up a ton of space and attention with his size and athleticism.

The UW Huskies overall have a very veteran offensive line with bookend tackles Troy Fautanu and Roger Rosengarten and guards Julius Buelow and Nate Kalepo. But the Huskies have a redshirt-freshman at center in Parker Brailsford.

Brailsford has been great this year, earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors. But the young center is listed at 6-2 and 275 pounds, meaning he’s giving up nearly 100 pounds to Sweat, who will likely be lining up against Brailsford all game long.

Brailsford will have help with Kalepo and Buelow at guard and with Fautanu and Rosengarten being known to pull in the run game, but he will have his hands full with one of the biggest and best players in the nation.

Catch the UW Huskies in the Sugar Bowl against Texas with the live ESPN Radio broadcast on Seattle Sports 710 AM, KIRO Sports 97.3 FM or either station’s official mobile app at 5:30 p.m. Monday. The other College Football Playoff semifinal, the Rose Bowl between Michigan and Alabama at 2 p.m., will also air live. For more details, click here.

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Sugar Bowl Tale of the Tape: How UW Huskies match up vs Texas